Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement without the involvement of his US and Western allies, further corroding already strained relations with the US.
The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Karzai that seem intended to antagonize his US backers, Western and Afghan officials said.
In recent weeks, Karzai has continued to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington that he negotiated, insisted on releasing hardened Taliban militants from prison and distributed distorted evidence of what he called US war crimes.
The clandestine contacts with the Taliban have borne little fruit, according to people who have been told about them. However, they have helped undermine the remaining confidence between the US and Karzai, making the already messy endgame of the Afghan conflict even more volatile.
Support for the war effort in the US Congress has deteriorated sharply, and US officials say they are uncertain whether they can maintain even minimal security cooperation with Karzai’s government or its successor after coming elections.
Frustrated by Karzai’s refusal to sign the security agreement, which would clear the way for US troops to stay on for training and counterterrorism work after the end of the year, US President Barack Obama summoned his top commanders to the White House for a meeting yesterday to consider the future of the US mission in Afghanistan.
Western and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the contacts, said that the outreach was apparently initiated by the Taliban in November last year, a time of deepening mistrust between Karzai and his allies.
Karzai seemed to jump at what he believed was a chance to achieve what the US was unwilling or unable to do, and reach a deal to end the conflict — a belief that few in his camp shared.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi acknowledged the secret contacts with the Taliban and said they were continuing.
“The last two months have been very positive,” Faizi said, characterizing the contacts as among the most serious the presidential palace has had since the war began.
“These parties were encouraged by the president’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards,” he said.
However, other Afghan and Western officials said that the contacts had fizzled, and that whatever the Taliban may have intended at the outset, they no longer had any intention of negotiating with the Afghan government.
They said that top Afghan officials had met with influential Taliban leaders in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in recent weeks, and were told that any prospects of a peace deal were now gone.
The Afghan and Western officials questioned whether the interlocutors that Karzai was in contact with actually had connections to the Taliban movement’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose blessing would be needed for any peace deal the group might strike.
Though there have been informal contacts between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders since the very early days of the war, the insurgents’ opaque and secretive leaders have made their intentions difficult to discern.
Afghan officials have struggled in recent years to find genuine Taliban representatives, and have flitted among a variety of current and former insurgent leaders, most of whom had only tenuous connections to Omar and his inner circle, US and Afghan officials have said.
The only known genuine negotiating channel to those leaders was developed by US and German diplomats, who spent roughly two years trying to open peace talks in Qatar. The diplomats repeatedly found themselves incurring the wrath of Karzai, who saw the effort as an attempt to circumvent him.
Then, when a US diplomatic push led to the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, Karzai lashed out publicly at the US. Afghan officials said that to them, the office looked far too much like the embassy of a government-in-exile.
Within days, the Qatar initiative stalled, and Karzai was fuming at what he saw as a plot by the US to cut its own deal with Pakistan and the Taliban without him.
In the wake of the failure in Qatar, Afghan officials redoubled their efforts to open their own channel to Omar, and by late autumn, Karzai apparently believed those efforts were succeeding.
Some senior Afghan officials say they did not share his confidence, and their doubts were shared by US officials in Kabul and Washington.
Both Karzai and US officials hear the clock ticking. US forces are turning over their combat role to Afghan forces and preparing to leave Afghanistan this year, and the campaigning for the Afghan national election in April has begun.
An orderly transition of power in an Afghanistan that can contain the insurgency on its own would represent the culmination of everything that the US has tried to achieve in the country.
If the peace overture to the Taliban is indeed at an end, as officials believe, it is unclear what Karzai will do next.
He could return to a softer stance on the security agreement and less hostility toward the US, or he could justify his refusal to sign the agreement by blaming the US for failing to secure a genuine negotiation with the insurgents.
Karzai has insisted that he will not sign the agreement unless the US help bring the Taliban to the table for peace talks.
Some diplomats worry that making such a demand allows the Taliban to dictate the terms of the US’ long-term presence in Afghanistan.
Others question Karzai’s logic: Why would the insurgency agree to talks if doing so would ensure the presence of the foreign troops they are determined to expel?